WORDS FOR WRITERS: Marketing for Writers with No Marketing Budget

WORDS FOR WRITERS: Marketing for Writers with No Marketing Budget


Guest Post by Hayley Zelda

Book sales have previously been heavily associated with traditional publishers putting books in bookstores and various distribution platforms with the hopes of landing on a bestseller list.

In this new age of self-publishing and social media, there are so many new ways to promote books and drive sales. There are self-published books with 0 marketing dollars spent that have outperformed books with huge publishers behind them.

Here are five free ways to effectively market a book for authors who have no money.

  • Give your book to book reviewers for free.

A quick Google search of your genre and “book blog” or “book tube” or “book review” will pull up a big list of potential targets.

The power of book reviewers is that they already have an audience that trusts their tastes and thoughts. Popular reviewers can have regular audiences in the hundreds of thousands, meaning many potential sales.

If a credible reviewer talks positively about your work, you can be sure that it has a lot of weight. Many reviewers also look at other reviewers to see what books to read so if you get a positive rating you could potentially get reviewed on more than one blog.

Now, the idea of handing out free books when you are not making money from it can be physically painful. However, considering the alternative of stacking it at home, giving out your books for free can change the course of your career. It is especially true if you can get in the right hands.

Larger book reviewers tend to have tons of authors fighting for their attention already. Start with smaller ones and work your way up the chain as your reputation builds. To find smaller reviewers, search for lesser known books on Google and see what pops up. Usually smaller review sites are more likely to be reviewing smaller name books. For example, Wired For Youth would be a good target for a non-fiction author as the site is clearly still actively posting and has some audience, but also doesn’t have a huge following yet.

  • Post in Niche Groups.

Facebook is also a fantastic place where you can push your digital marketing skills. The easiest way to promote on Facebook is to join groups that are relevant to your book.

If you’re an expert in the topic, consider hosting an AMA (as me anything) or giving free advice. People love free advice and it gives you a great chance to plug your book.

You can also consider sharing a snippet of your book for people to read. People in Facebook groups hate being marketed to, so be clever about adding value before you start promoting.

If you’re targeting a younger audience, Discord is a fantastic tool as well. Discord is a site for group chats around specific interests with huge numbers of users.

To find Discord groups, use and find groups that have a relevant audience for you. Some servers have hundreds of thousands of members that might be perfect for your book. Utilize the search function to find what you’re looking for. For example, by searching “Harry Potter”, I found the “Hogwarts School”, which is a group of 1.5k passionate Harry Potter fans. 

  • Do events and free readings with relevant organizations.

Notwithstanding the fact that the majority of the human populace is glued to their screens, there are people who appreciate events, especially when it comes to books. Some excellent literary organizations that work with budding authors are also very much in business.

Make plans to team up with them and organize a free reading. Many libraries and bookstores love teaming up with local bookstores. It’s a great way to get your name out there and you never know who might be in the audience! 

If you decide to organize a reading event, get the word out on social media a couple of weeks in advance. 

Here is a link you can visit for more information on literary organizations. 

  • Share samples on storytelling platforms.

Readers from all over the world find their next favorite read online. While some love to hold a tangible book in their hands while reading, some prefer books in the digital format. 

Sharing a sample of your book on storytelling platforms is a great way to extend your reach and gain some readers. Storytelling platforms are great because you can be confident that the people there are interested in reading and finding new stories already.

Share a snippet that hooks people in (plot twists or withholding a key idea is great for this). At the end, include a link to purchase the full book.

A few great storytelling platforms include Medium and Storify for nonfiction and Wattpad and Commaful for fiction.

You’ll need to study the distribution mechanisms on each site as they are all a little different. Studying how to best leverage the platform to grow their audiences is the best way to unlock new sales!

  • Reach out to influencers and people with newsletters.

The power of social influencers in this day and age is staggering. There are tons of people on social media who have built massive followings that you can talk into. 

Reaching to one of these influencers will get you more readers than you can do while spending a fortune on advertising.

The truth is, many influencers these days want money. So many brands are willing to pay them, so they often expect it; however, you can still certainly do influencer marketing without paying.

To find influencers that may be willing to work with you in exchange for a free book, look for influencers with modest followings between 1,000 and 10,000 followers on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. When evaluating influencers to reach out to, pay close attention to likes and views. There is no use in reaching out to somebody who is getting no engagement or viewers.

Focus on ones that are as relevant to you as possible. Find hundreds of potential candidates. Because many will require payment, it’s important to reach out to a large volume of potential candidates to look for ones who may accept a free book.

Search for specific topics on Instagram and Twitter and look for trending/top posts in specific hashtags that have good engagement. Then open up the accounts to see how many followers they have and evaluate if they might be a good influencer to promote your book. For example, you might search #HarryPotter if your audience lines up with the YA Harry Potter audience. You can reach out to potential influencers via the direct messaging systems or emails if they share their email.

  • Create A Bundle.

Find other authors and make a special deal to sell your books as a “bundle”. The bundle should be cheaper than buying the books individually and because everybody is promoting it, will allow for extra promotion across the board. People love a good deal! For example, if you’re bundling 5 books that are usually $10 each, you can make the bundle $30, which is a whole $20 savings! All 5 of the authors will be promoting.

You want to find potential collaborators that are also promoting their books. If the person’s book is too popular already, they’ll have little reason to work with you. If the person’s book is getting no readership and they aren’t aggressively promoting, then you won’t get any benefit by collaborating with them. You can find many potential collaborators in book marketing Facebook groups and Goodreads giveaway groups. From there, look at their Amazon rankings, ratings, and more to get a sense for if a collaboration will be useful. The key is to align incentives. You all win together.

  • Find Fiction Podcasts.

Many podcasts are made just to interview authors. They are made to promote and have interesting conversations with interesting authors. There are a lot of podcasts, many of them still starting out and just growing. These are great opportunities to get your book promoted. You can get interviewed, have your stories read aloud, or even just buy a podcast ad to promote your book

To find podcasts, you can use the search in your podcast app of choice or use a podcast search engine like From there, reach out to the ones that are relevant to you. Most have websites and a contact form or email address.

Volume is incredibly important here. Don’t just reach out to 5 or 10 and call it a day. If you’re going to use this strategy, go for hundreds.

In general, get creative! When you can’t throw money at the problem, you have to be clever and think creatively. You have to have the mentality that there are people out there who want to love your book. You just need to be clever enough to get it in front of them.


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: Marketing for Writers with No Marketing Budget
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ANNOUNCEMENT – “A Woman of the Sea” is swimming over to Radish Fiction

ANNOUNCEMENT – “A Woman of the Sea” is swimming over to Radish Fiction

Hello, friends and readers!

Things have been pretty bonkers for me for the last five days! I’ve barely slept, but for VERY GOOD REASONS!

Starting on June 5th 2020, I’m publishing A WOMAN OF THE SEA exclusively on Radish Fiction as “The Woman Who Fell Through Time”.

You can either read the novel an episode at a time (one episode unlocks at a time) or you can use coins to pay to unlock the whole thing at once. Read it here, and get two free coupons to unlock episodes early:

This all happened very, very quickly, and I appreciate that this is coming as a surprise right in the middle of #PrideatWattpad for those of you who may be reading it on Wattpad right now. However, I am extremely excited to introduce an edited and revised version of the story to a whole new group of romance fans.

The first five chapters will remain available on Wattpad, but to continue reading the story past that point, you will have to download the Radish Fiction app (available for free through the iStore or GooglePlay) where you can wait for new chapters to unlock for free, or purchase coins to read it immediately.

You can also get two free chapters if you head here.

If you read up to chapter five on Wattpad and download Radish, start reading from Episode 9 on Radish as the chapters are slightly different there.  This does mean that I will be un-publishing the rest of the novel on Wattpad.

Also – keep an eye on my social media for information about a print version. The paperback ought to be out before the end of 2020 (though I won’t commit to a date just now, in case that changes), which means that very soon you’ll be able to bring Jessie and Margaret home with you.

I know some of you will be disappointed by this decision. I appreciate that, and am sorry that I have made you unhappy.

As much as I know that some of you would have preferred for me to keep the book here, I regret that there was not offered the opportunity to keep the book on Wattpad and monetize it. I do have to take any opportunity to monetize my novels where I can, as I am a full-time author and this is literally what pays my rent. This is why I elected to also licence a print version of the book at the same time; that way you’ll have the option to reread it as many times as you like, as often as you like.

Thank you so much for your support and your love of the novel, and your many wonderful comments, and your enthusiastic joy at Jessie and Margaret’s love story. I hope to see you over on Radish, and if not there, I would appreciate it so much if you could all write a review of the book on Amazon and GoodReads when the paperback version is released. That would mean the world to me.

Happy Reading, and Happy Pride, one and all,

–J.M. Frey

JM FreyANNOUNCEMENT – “A Woman of the Sea” is swimming over to Radish Fiction
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: Creating a Book Photoshoot

WORDS FOR WRITERS: Creating a Book Photoshoot

What is it?

A ‘book photoshoot’ is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Think of it as a modern ‘glamour shots’ for your book baby: it gets all gussied up, put in a fabulous setting, and photographed under professional lighting and from the most flattering of angles.

Book photoshoots – colloquially known as #bookstagrams, as they evolved from the photos Instagramers would take of the books they were reading – are rarely of just the book alone, and often include settings, props, lighting, and sometimes people.

Bookstagram vs. Shelfie

A “bookstagram” shot is one in which the book itself is the specific star of the shoot, and while it may not be in the centre of the image, it is the centre of attention. A “shelfie” is a shot of either just a set of bookshelves, or a bookshelf with a person or particular highlighted book in frame, where the curation, organization, and decoration of the shelf itself and the books on it are the start of the shoot.

Who Bookstagrams?

Generally speaking, the Bookstagrammers you’ll find on Instagram (and through there, their own blogs and other social media feeds), are enthusiastic readers who sometimes, but not always, also review the books in the comments. The less staged and curated feeds generally come from readers who just like to document what they’re engaging with, and to interact with fellow readers.

However, like in every other industry on the internet, there are Bookstagram Influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. These Influencers usually have deals with large publishing outlets or review outlets to get ARCs early so they can work their marketing magic for the book and the author.

In between these two extremes are people who just like having fun taking interesting, well-composed, fun pictures of books. Again, sometimes they review the book they’re photographing, sometimes they don’t/

Why Do a Photo Shoot Yourself?

As an author, the value of creating a photoshoot for your book lies mostly in the creation of another marketing asset to have up your sleeve, and for personal satisfaction. Most people doing these shoots are Bookstagrammers, but I’ve found as an author that having some Bookstagram-style photos of my book is very useful for my own social media feeds, especially when I’m introducing people to my work for the first time via a pinned Tweet or an Instagram Post.

Doing a Bookstagram shoot is also useful because the props and setting that you choose will also give the reader hints regarding the genre and content of the novel. Readers coming into contact with you book for the first time via an online image won’t have the ability to flip it over and read the cover copy (or if we’re talking an online-only book, scroll down to read the summary). So the way you shoot your book will give you the ability to include some of those needed context clues, and help make sure the book reaches the right audience.

Cell phones are generally high enough quality now-a-days to use as your camera, but if you have access to something much fancier and higher-end, go for it. You’ll want to shoot in the highest resolution you can, so the image is nice and crisp.

How To

Decide On “The Look”

No matter which ‘look’ you end up going for, the point of each and every book photoshoot is to evoke a desire for the viewer to step into the photo and pick up the book and start reading. This is why a lot of shoots involve things like beautiful garden benches, picnic blankets or cozy knitted throws, cups of tea, candles, string lights, warm reading socks, fluffy pillows, fresh flowers, pets like ferrets, cats, and dogs, etc.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are some of the most common “looks” that people tend to use on Instagram:



-Props Maximalist

-Props Minimalist

 -Just the book (more or less)

-The Aesthetic

If you’re going for a themed aesthetic, consider that you’re likely going to want to use the same setting over and over again, so choose something that’s easily accessible and has effortless or minimal-effort set up.

-A Little of Everything

There’s no need to make a clear delineation – I do some Maximalist and some Minimalist with each shoot, and try to do some Cozy shots as well.

Choose Your Setting

Once you’ve figured out which “Look” you’re going for, find somewhere to do the photoshoot that allows you to take the books at several angles. I use my dining room table because I love the richness of the dark brown wood grain, I can easily get above it on a chair for a top-down shot, and the wall behind it is pretty blank and even so if some of the wall is visible, it’s fine.

Choose a place that’s devoid of visual clutter like outlets, light switches, art hung on the wall, or mess that needs tidying. Make sure you check the full range of everything that will be in the shot – the floors, the ceilings, the mirrors – and ensure that there’s nothing that will be caught on the camera that you don’t want seen by your entire audience. Put away laundry, vacuum the carpet, get those cobwebs, move personal photos, and don’t leave anything out on surfaces that you don’t want seen.

Gather Your PropsThe number one rule of using props is: DON’T COVER THE TITLE AND THE AUTHOR’S NAME. People need that information to look up you and your book!If you’re choosing to use any, gather props that reflect the content, genre, and mood of your book, and/or reflect the symbolism and colours of the book cover.  If you scroll back up and look at my photos for The Skylark’s Saga, you’ll see pins, a hair stick with a wolf on it, a gold mask, and a gold crown – all of these things are hints and clues about what happens in the book.

Move props around and swamp them in and out of the picture as you’re shooting, so you have lots of different options to work from.  Sometimes what looks great to the eye looks wonky when you see the photo, so set yourself up for success by trying many different things. Eventually you’ll hit on a composition and balance that really clicks for you.

And, if you’re going for the cozy look, think of the sorts of things you like to surround yourself with while you’re reading; slippers, pillows, a nice throw blanket, twinkly lights, perhaps a candle or two and something nice to drink like a coffee or a cocktail?

For example:

Gabrielle Harbowy reached out to ask me what she should use for props for this book. Here’s the summary:Sixteen-year-old Alicía Diaz’s parents have been in a stable, nurturing polyamorous relationship all her life, so and dating both a boy and a girl in high school doesn’t seem like a big deal to her.When Allie crashes the car during an impromptu driving lesson, there’ll be no more driving for her until it’s paid in full. Her love life crashes next: she finds out her girlfriend is moving away, and that she told her new boyfriend before telling Allie.

She’s determined to handle it all on her own, but then other kids start harassing her to the point of threatening her summer job – the one she really needs to pay off her accident. Allie doesn’t know how she’s going to make everything work. But she knows she has to stay true to herself.

I suggested she think of the kind of stuff that Gen Z students would have on their person in the day-to-day, especially thing that relate to the plot – it’s a romance, yeah, so hearts, maybe (if it isn’t too cliche), but not the standard romance-market fare hearts. I suggested she head to the local dollar store and find things like candy hearts, or a heart key-chain, or heart jewelry of the sort that a teenager would wear (avoid dated ‘adult’ pieces like gold-and-diamond brooches) But also maybe iPod headphones, or a locker lock, or pencils, because a lot of the story happens at school and on the walks home from class. And then something to play into the idea of threes – three intertwined rings? Three pencils, three little flowers with their stems braided?

And I like to add a little bit of glitter, or sparkles, something that reflects light or a second light source like a candle or string of lights or something to give the shot a bit of depth. And lastly, a cup of tea, or a cup of coffee, whichever they drink most in the book. Alcohol isn’t appropriate in this picture because the main characters aren’t of age.

Or for my own City By Night, as it’s a satire story featuring a vampire character, I wanted to lean into the ‘gothic romance’ look, but also be a bit silly; so, wine glass and funny fangs!

Focus and Lighting

Make sure that you’re able to achieve a nice crisp focus. Clean your lenses, and if you have an auto-focus, make sure that it’s concentrated on the book title and not on anything else in your composition.

You’re going to want a light source directly aimed at the face of your book (best to use a matte cover than a glossy one, if possible), as well as ambient lighting. I turn on my dining room light, the one over the table, for the ambient light. I also have a goose-neck reading lamp, whose head I can manipulate and aim. However, because this light is very harsh and can create cutting and dark shadows, I tape a single kleenex tissue over the end of the metal shade to diffuse the light and make it less like a theatre spotlight.

Play with the different kinds of lamps, colours of tissue paper or transparent light gels or candy wrappers you have around the house. (Be wary of fire hazards!) Move the light around until you’re happy with how everything is lit.

And be aware of where your own shadow is in frame – try not to get between the light source and your book and props. (Unless, of course, you are deliberately trying to throw shadow onto the shot because it’s a thriller or mystery book, in which case, make it look as deliberate and crisp as possible!)


Experiment with the angle from which you want to shoot the book, and always  double check what else is in frame when you move the camera – you might accidentally catch that shadowed corner or clutter pile you were hoping to avoid.

Try many different angles with the same set up – birds-eye view, from below, from straight on, etc.

It’s okay to shoot bigger and wider than you plan to crop the image. In fact, it’s suggested. That way you have a bit of wiggle room.

Cropping & Filters

Always save a copy of the raw, unaltered photograph before you start playing with cropping and filters. You’ll want to crop the photo into a perfect square for most social imaging platforms – except, infuriatingly, Twitter. So as you’re playing with the filters (I like to really pump up the contrast and colour saturation to make sure the lettering on the covers is legible and popping), save both an uncropped and a square version of the picture so you can use it along many platforms.


If you’re photographing a series, consider ensuring that the tone, spacing, and ‘feel’ of each photo of each book is consistent. You want viewers to look at the photos and immediately understand that these books are supposed to go together.

But What If I Don’t Have a Physical Book?

If you don’t have a physical copy of the book, you can either bring up a picture of your cover on a tablet or smartphone and include the device in your photoshoot, to represent the fact that the book is available in a digital-only format. You can also superimpose it onto a stock photo if you’re fancy like that, or use the DIY Book Covers site to generate one (, like I did here:

This image is composed entirely in Canva in a few minutes

This image is composed entirely in Canva in a few minutes. It needs some work, because obviously the shadows on the pearls and the smartphone aren’t entirely correct, but for about ten minute’s worth of tinkering, it’s pretty good. You can easily compose an entirely-digital Bookstagram photo if you have the know-how or watch a few tutorials about photoediting.


If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to leave a comment! I’m happy to address specific topics, so feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment here with your query. You can find the rest of my Words for Writers articles here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: Creating a Book Photoshoot
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: The Importance of Your Author Headshot

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The Importance of Your Author Headshot

A term taken from the entertainment industry, a headshot is an 8″ x 10″ professional photograph of an actor, taken with specific parameters, which is submitted to a casting director or producer in the hopes of booking an audition based on the first impression of their looks.

Having a headshot-like photo of yourself as an author is also important. While it doesn’t need to be actor-quality, it does need to be professional, clean, and accurately represent both your image and your brand. This headshot is used in your books, on your website, on your agent’s website, on your publisher’s website, and in any marketing you or your team may put together to advertise reading and appearances.

It’s also important to have a single consistent headshot across all of your social media profiles, so you are instantly recognizable on each platform and it’s clear to people searching for your social media accounts to follow you that they’ve found the right account.

It’s also important that your headshot actually look like you–not a heavily made-up version of you–so that when you arrive places like book store signings, and local writer’s festivals, the organization team knows who you are. If readers know what you look like, they can find you at events and appearances, or can recognize you as they pass by your table at a convention.

For my first few author headshots, I recycled my acting headshots. I was still actively working in the industry and it seemed a shame to spend $400 on photos and only use them for one side of my creative career. Here are some samples of those shots:

You can see that while they're nice photos, they're very "performery"

You can see that while they’re nice photos, they’re very “performery”. They look very posed, and very, dare I say it, boring for all that they’re colourful and I look quite nice in them. The one on the far left is the only one that really shows any hint of my actual personality. I quickly switched out my headshot for this one:

This photo was part of a portrait series I modeled for. Again, I thought, why not use a great photo that already exists instead of commissioning a new one? But, if you notice, this one is distracting. Though it’s a great shot of my face, and especially my eyes, that weird lick of hair in the centre of my forehead and that earring pull your attention, instead of my face. It’s also a little too close-up. I look like I’m about to eat your soul. It’s a beautiful photo for the portrait series. Not so much for an author headshot.

That’s when I realized I needed to commission proper author headshots – what works for actors does not always work for authors. Actor headshots end up being a bit cold, somehow, and for an author, you want your picture to encourage people to open up your book and start reading. I engaged a professional photographer (in fact, the dude who did the portrait series above) and  for a couple hundred bucks we shot in his product studio (he photographs cell phones mostly) for a few hours.

I used the one on the top left here the most, as it looks nice and serious but also a bit playful – like I’m enticing you to come and get a peek at the things I’m thinking. Then switched to the one on the bottom left when my first YA novel came out because you could really see my personality in that one, and it was adventurous.

When these photos got to be over 10 years old, I decided it was time for an update, and asked a local cosplay photographer to do up my new set:

I’m not completely keen on the middle one, I’ll me honest, because I think it makes me look like a soccer mom or your local elementary school secretary. But the one of the far left is, I think, a great representation of my personality.

So which headshot am I using right now? Well, none of the ones I paid for!

This is a selfie I took in my bathroom (which has the most magical lighting, I swear). I’d gotten all dolled up for an on-camera interview and really liked this photo. It’s a lot more serious than I usually am in my author headshots, but as my next few books are a lot more literary in nature than my two fantasy series, I wanted something a little more “grown up” (but not as grown up as the above Soccer Mom look) while still being fun. A friend cleaned it up and adjusted some of the colour in Photoshop for me, and voila, my new headshot was born.

This is proof that to get a great headshot, you don’t have to seek out a professional photographer. I still like to do so, because they have experience manipulating images to clean them up, and generally much better cameras, skills, and lighting set-ups than just you, your cell phone, and a backyard. But it’s not necessary, as long as your resulting photo is clean, crisp, and flattering.

Finding a Photographer

If you do decide to go with a professional, seek out someone who’s photography work centres on helping people translate emotion on their faces. Look for photographers that specialize in headshots (acting is better than corporate), or character photography like cosplay photoshoots or boudoir shoots. These are people who know how to flatter a face, but also make it look like a real person, and can pull the emotion out of you.

Avoid photobooths, passport photo stations, school photo set-ups. There’s no way to adjust the lighting to ensure that it’s the most flattering.

If you’re thinking of using one of those photostudios that exist inside big box stores like WalMart, have a candid conversation with the photographer about what you want, and look at examples of their past work. These kinds of “family posed together” photos produce nice pictures, but they’re usually not as soulful as you want for an author photo.

Also consider reaching out to local artschools and galleries, and ask to review the student’s portfolio before agreeing to work with them.

Most importantly, if you are working with an outside photographer – PAY THEM.

Be prepared to pay upwards of $400-$600 for a full headshot experience, with multiple looks, and hair & makeup included, with some light digital photo editing (like my first set of headshots above.) If you do your own hair & makeup, select your own wardrobe, and only have a few looks, with digital editing, then you’ll likely pay around $100-$300. If you handle everything and they just need to show up and shoot, then cover their transportation costs and the bare minimum.

Like you, these people are artists and this is their job. Please don’t insult their craft by offering to pay in exposure – people die of exposure.

Assembling Good Author Headshot


-Shoot the photo in the absolute highest resolution the camera allows for. This will ensure that the photo is suitable for print.

-Most author photos on jackets and print articles are square, and  in social media, they’re circles, so be aware that your picture, whatever orientation you shoot it in, will be cropped.


-Usually an author photo is cropped to a few inches above the top of your head, at your shoulders, and just below your collarbone. So make sure that whatever is in that square – hair, clothes, makeup, background, jewelry – is the best it can be and does not distract. Obviously you can shoot the photo wider, and provide wider versions of it so outlets and publishers can crop it as they desire, but be aware that generally speaking, that’s the only part that will be used.

-The most important part of the photo is your face, specifically your eyes. Make sure that this is the focus of the photo. I know it sounds obvious, but anything that distracts from that (like my silly snake-tongue curl of hair in the middle of my forehead above, or an overly-busy background) is doing you a disservice.

-If the camera is help just slightly above your eye-line, so you’re looking up at it and your chin is tilted up toward it, it will give your chin, jaw, and shoulders nice definition. Necks tend to sort of blend together in photos otherwise. However, the camera shouldn’t be so far above you that it’s clear that you’re looking up at it.


-This one’s a bit tricky if you don’t have a studio set up. You want light that is bright enough to see your face, but not so harsh that it cuts lines out of shadows on your features, or flattens your features right off. I generally use the natural light from big bright windows or put a lamp directly in front of my face, a few feet away from where I’m sitting or standing. The key is to diffuse the light – pull sheer curtains (without patterns!) across the window, or drape a sheer, colourless and paternless scarf over the lamp. Never shoot with a bare bulb – I tape a kleenex to the outside casing of my  reading lamp.

-If you’re shooting outdoors, consider doing so during “The Golden Hour”, or right around sunset when the light quality gets very warm and the slanted angle of the sun is flattering. Otherwise, natural light tends to be very cold, or blue, and can make you look sickly and flattened.


-This should be pretty plain, and should flatter what you’re wearing and your natural colouring as much as possible. There’s a rust-red fence in an alleyway near my house that is so flattering for my friend with an olive complexion. But when I stand in front of it, my pink-toned skin just looks flushed up and sunburned.

-Try to find something with a bit of texture, like a painted brick wall, a trellis covered in ivy, a section of wallpaper that’s not too busy and distracting, or a wall filled with empty frames, or in front of a massive painting of flowers, a  muted landscape, or just colours. Avoid anything with pictures, places, mirrors, or paintings of people in it–the only face we should see is yours, and the only setting we should be exposed to is the one you’re sitting in.

-Having said all that about not being too distracting, try to also avoid boring old Builder’s Beige.

-Don’t shoot in front of a mirror, a window, or anything else intensely reflective. There’s a chance the photographer will end up in the shot, or you’ll end up with a weird back-lit halo from where the light is bouncing back at the camera.

-You can also choose to shoot in such a way that the background is slightly out of focus.


-Look at the camera (dead centre of the lens, not at the photographer), or just off frame. Author photos of people’s profiles or romantic poses of them as they gaze out over the sea are kind of poetic, I guess, but they don’t help the readers to know what you look like (and thus find you at literary festivals or in autograph lines).

-Keep your posture loose, but prim. Lengthen you spine, raise your chin a little, roll your shoulders back a bit, but don’t stand at attention or hold yourself like a ballet dancer.

-Experiment with the angle at which you hold your body. Shoulders-straight-on-to-the-camera really works for some body types, and really does not for others. Look at how stars are standing and holding thier arms and hands on the red carpet, how they cock their hips and angle their heads. It may feel stupid, and may even be a bit uncomfortable, but you can’t deny that they’ve got the whole “posing without looking like I’m posing” pose down.

-Find a way to put some natural-looking gaps between your arms and your body, so there’s a bit of air in there. This will give your torso and waist definition and keep you from looking like one solid mass straight across. Perch an elbow on an armrest, or hold it slightly cocked away from your body, to allow a space. If you like put your hands on your hips, instead put them on your natural waist and a little further forward on your belly than you normally would. This keeps you from looking like Peter Pan.

-It’s okay to suck it in if that makes you more comfortable, as look as you don’t have an expression on your face that makes it look like you’re sucking it in!

-Your expression should be one of ease and comfort.  Don’t lean to hard into ‘mysterious’ or ‘goofy’ or ‘sexy’. Again, this is a photo of you, not a photo of your story or what you want people to feel when they read it. There’s other ways to convey visual representations of your tale. This isn’t the place for it. This is also not the place for your best GQ photoshoot celebrity scowl impression. Scowls don’t invite readers into your worlds.  I’m not saying you have to be all smiley-go-lucky, but make sure your expression isn’t standoffish or offputting.

-And yes, go ahead and practice your poses and expressions in the mirror. We actors all do. Trust me.


-You will also have to provide your own wardrobe, so choose solid colours or big patterns (tiny patterns don’t translate well on camera), something with a flattering cuts, and clean tailoring without too many flounces or flourishes. Consider things like: a cozy cable-knit sweater with an interesting but not distracting neckline, a summer dress with cute sleeves, a favourite teeshirt under a blazer, etc.

-There’s no need to go formal, but also don’t look like a slob. In fact, “business casual” is a great place to aim, though you can be a bit more buttoned up if you want something that convesys a bit more seriousness (especially if you write something like medical thrillers), or something a bit more approachable, like well-tailored jeans and a very flattering teeshirt (especially great if you write for kids).

-Don’t get sued! It’s tempting to wear a band teeshirt if you write about musicions, or a Starfleet insignia earrings if you write SF/F, or some sort of nod to your nerdom if that floats your boat, like a Steven Universe tee, but resist. Those are copywrited logos and images and it’s best to just keep them off you entirely, just in case. Also, they can distract from the message of the photo, which is “this is me”; putting branded stuff in the picture with you distracts from your face.

-Don’t over-layer. One, maybe two layers is all you need. A shirt and a waistcoat, for example, or a cute summer dress with a cardigan. Make sure whatever layer you add flatters your figure instead of hiding or muffling it, and that they’re in colours that contrast and don’t blend together.

-Don’t over accessorize. Keep the jewelry simple, the scarves non-distracting, and if you decide to put something in your hair – a clip, a band, a ribbon, bead or clasp – make sure that it’s subtle and flattering and doesn’t pull focus.

-Look at yourself from every angle in the clothing – does it give you saggy arm or can you see your bra through it? Be aware that the light will be much brighter in the studio.

-Don’t let your clothes muffle you – your face is the most important element of the photo. If your clothes take away from that, instead of framing it prettily, then choose something else.

Hair and Makeup

-You’ll also probably have to do your own hair and makeup, unless the headshot professional includes it in their fee. If you’re not sure how to do your own, look up some “natural makeup” tutorials online.

-Even if you don’t wear a lot of makeup in your daily life, you will need to put on at least a little for this shoot. Even your skin tone with a bit of foundation to avoid really red or blue areas of your face that make you look tired (especially under your eyes), and take away the shine (which the lights will LOVE) with some matching or translucent powder. A bit of blush helps your face from looking too flat, and if you feel comfortable with it, add a little bit of highlighter and contour to just make the natural shape of your face more defined. Don’t go overboard, though, because with the camera that close it will be obvious you have. Define your eyebrows gently, and I would recommend lining your eyes and wearing mascara to make sure that they’re the most prominent feature. Finish up with a lightly tinted gloss or a bold lip, whichever you like. You can go as light and natural or as dramatic and fun as you like, but just remember that you should still look like you.

-And yes, male-presenting friends who never use makeup in their daily lives, I’m talking to you too. Foundation, powder, a bit of mascara and a bit of colour on the lips – that’s the least you should be doing as well. Just because you’re male doesn’t mean the camera isn’t going to flatten your face too. (Trust me, the male celebs you see on the red carpet? They’re totally wearing makeup.)

-Don’t get a new haircut the day of, just in case you hate it. However, do go to your stylist for a great blow-out or a bit of styling care if you know that you’ll be happy with the work they do, and you think it’s worth it. Otherwise, your normal “going to work” haircare routine is fine.

-Like your clothes, your make up and hairstyle shouldn’t distract or be too “made up.” You should look like you, not the Glamour Shots version of you.

-Only go to makeup counters for the free make over if you trust them and have seen their work before.

-A little bit of handcream on your palms and stroked over the crown and ends of your hair helps to tame fly-aways.


-Generally speaking, your main headshot should make you look warm, approachable, and a little bit like you’ve got a secret you can’t wait to share with your readers.

-Consider your genre and audience – if you write medical thrillers or crime dramas, consider looking and posing a bit more formal, a bit more serious. If you write fun kid’s adventures, wear bright colours and smile widely. You should lean toward your genre, without letting yourself get totally swallowed up by the ‘mood’ of it. Look at the other author photos for comparable authors in your genre for inspiration.

-Have multiple shots available – your main one, and then a few others to use depending on the event. I usually make sure I have a “serious author business” shot, a “I am a kind person and you should totally come talk to me about my books” shot, and my “yay we’re going a fun event!” shot, at the bare minimum.


-Go light on props, if you decide to have any. A suggestion of genre – like stethoscope on the table beside you – is always better than a full on set with costumes. For example: if we know you write about vampires, then you don’t need to show that you do too; that’s how we found you – you don’t need to dress all in black (especially if it’s not flattering), wear blood-red lipstick, and clutch a rose or a stake. Doing that a) makes you look like it’s Halloween and b) makes it look like you don’t trust your readers to understand what your genre is.

-Steampunk, as an aesthetic, seems to be the only exception to this rule. More is more in terms of Steampunk Author shots, it seems!

-Don’t hold a copy of your latest book in the photo. That’s great for candids and other photos on your website, but putting the book in your headshot will date it extremely quickly. The second you put out another book, that headshot is no longer relevant or useful.

What do you do with your author headshot now that you have one?

-Make sure you have the highest-res version (the biggest file size) that you can get with the photo, and make sure you always keep a copy of it. I’m constantly asked if I have a higher-rez version of something for print.

-If possible, make certain that you have pics that are right-click-able so they can actually copy/paste them onto their own websites, etc. Make sure to name the file something like “J.M. Frey Promo Photo 7 by Jane Camera” so both your name and the photographer’s name are attached to the file.

-Pick one head shot and stick with it for at least a year. The point of a photo like this is brand recognition, so swapping your photo in and out constantly makes it hard for your audience to know you’re you. If you must use a different photo (for example, your current photo is too serious for a light-hearted, fun interview), try to use one from the same series as your current headshot. The mood and tone will be different, but the photo will still be recognizably on brand (like my two photos above with the pink backgrounds).

-Put it in your Media Kit

-Put a gallery of photos (but not too many!) in the About section of your website so events,  media, interviewers, organizers, marketers, and venues can select the photo they feel best fits the mood and tone of what they are conveying.

-Give it to your agent, and provide it with your bio to your publisher when asked.


Have a question about the craft of biz of being a writer? Check out more WORDS FOR WRITERS articles.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: The Importance of Your Author Headshot
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: What is a Hybrid Author?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: What is a Hybrid Author?

Hello! Hi there!

If you’ve gotten this far in Words for Writers, you might be wondering who the author behind all of these articles is. My name is J.M. Frey – I’m an agented author with several awards under my belt with six of my novels currently published in the trade-wide traditional manner with professional smallpress houses.

But I’m also a self-published author. Both here, on Wattpad, and in via IngramSpark, Smashwords, and Kindle Publishing. These services allow you to take your manuscript and turn it into either a paperback or hardcover book (IngramSpark) or a Kindle-compatible and distributed ebook, or a every-other-reading-device-compatible and distributed ebook (Smashwords).

I am what we call a hybrid author: like the chimera of old, I have one foot in the traditional publishing scene, and one in the world of self-propelled publishing.

But why, you may ask, why selfpublish if you have an agent, and an editor, and a publisher?

Mostly, for the same reasons you do. I want full control of the projects I choose to selfpublish; I want a larger piece of the payments pie; I want to share my story with a specific niche set of readers that my publishers can’t/won’t target; I have a strange little story that doesn’t fit the narrow confines of what my professional connections want to publish.

See, not every project I write is going to get picked up for publication. Either my agent doesn’t like it or doesn’t want to represent it (like “A Woman of the Sea” on Wattpad), or my agent tries to sell it and none of the publishing houses bite. At that point I can either put that project in a desk drawer and never look at it again, or I can polish it up and offer it to my readership anyway. This gives me greater ability to go a bit weird with my work, or challenge the (still, unfortunately) sometimes narrow-minded mainstream preference in regards to the diversity of my protagonists.

I’ve talked a lot in previous articles about how and why to achieve your tradepublishing goals. But there are also lots of reasons for tradepub authors to jump into selfpublishing.

So Why Self Publish? Usually because your book is…

…niche work.

The book or story produced is either hard to sell to mainstream publishers, or they’ve rejected it. In this case, I mean when the agent/publishers think the book is “too” something. “Too poetic.” “Too weird.” “Too queer.” “Too diverse.” Make sure that you’re not mistaking a book being “too” something for feedback that indicates that your book requires more work. “Too raw” may actually mean “requires some serious editing.”

…shorter or longer than books traditionally are.

Tradepub houses sometimes have a pretty firm set of guidelines for how long they want a book to be, because of the cost of manufacturing that book, and because of the market research stating how long a book ought to be in order to be appealing for the target demographic. But sometimes a story ends up being outside those guidelines, and that margin is just too large to make printing such a book viable.

For example, skinny novellas with only 20-40 pages are often too small to produce and make a profit – it would cost you almost as much to produce it as you could sell it for, making it a project not worth taking on for a publisher (whose goal, of course, is to keep the business afloat while publishing great books).

Alternately, a 600 page book’s price needs to be jacked up to account for the large amounts of ink, paper, and special binding to keep something that large from falling apart. Publishers prefer books in that sweet spot where they’re making good profit, but purchasers aren’t feeling like they’re being ripped off.

… weirdly formatted.

This is anything that would make the book more expensive for the publisher to create, would require that they hire an extra graphic designer, or might be confusing to a reader used to just straight-up prose. For example, if part of the story is told in pictures, or in verse, or a book that requires extra special formatting allowances, such as a good deal of illustrations or footnotes, or a book that ties in with and is dependent media available elsewhere – a webcomic, or a video hosted on your site.

I’m not saying that tradepub publishers aren’t interested in taking risks, but they are calculated risks and that have been costed-out carefully, and usually are executed only when the author involved is a big enough name that the bizzareness of the project won’t put off the hardcore readership of the author.

…backlisted and/or out of print.

One of my novels, TRIPTYCH (also to be found here on Wattpad) was originally published with a tradepub small press out of Canada. When my contract with them was up, I clawed back the rights because I was unhappy with their marketing efforts on the book. A second publisher took the ebook rights for the book, but was uninterested in also publishing the hardcopy version, so I too myself off to IngramSpark, and along with the help of a hired interior designer and the incomparable Adrienne Kress and @RodenyVSmith, produced a paperback and hardcover to fill the gap myself.

…a collection.

Over a decade or so of being a professional writer, most authors end up with a hodgepodge of short stories, poems, and articles that they’ve written for anthologies and other publications. Usually you get the rights back on these kinds of short pieces a year or two after they were originally published. And then they’re just sitting there on your hard drive, collecting digital dust. This is a good opportunity to collect them all together, put them in some sort of order, and publish them as a single volume. Unless you’re a big name, most agents and tradepublishers aren’t interested in publishing this for you, as there’s little guarantee of a return on investment. But these are great volumes to have for your readership, especially for the completionists and hardcore fans you may cultivate.

… to complete a series.

Sometimes, and it happens to us all, something happens and a publisher doesn’t end up publishing a whole series. Firstly, publishers don’t always sign the rights for a whole trilogy or series at once. Usually it’s in one or two-book deals. If book #1 does well, the publisher may then contract for books #2 and #3. Or just book #2.

And if any one of those books flop (whether it’s the publisher’s fault for marketing it poorly, or it just doesn’t do well), then the publisher will either decline to sign the rest of the series or cancel the contract. After all, why should they publish a proven money-waster?

It’s harsh, but it’s one of the realities of the biz. In this case, your readership is left with an incomplete series, and you might have a book or two that you’ve written already, or a story you want to finish, and now can’t.

In this case, it’s usually possible to negotiate with the publishing house to bypass the Right of First Refusal clause, and claw back the ability to publish the rest of the books in the series on your own.

…been rejected by agent / publisher.

My first agent read the original version of A WOMAN OF THE SEA (then called “First Impressions”) and said that he didn’t know how to sell this “weird Victorian romance crap.” Putting aside the fact that A WOMAN OF THE SEA is neither Victorian nor crap, I did a revision on it and then put it away. When I pitched it to my second agent, she also said that she wasn’t interested in trying to shop around something that another agent had already rejected, and that she wasn’t sure what to do with a queer time-travel love story either. With no support for the book at all, I decided to revise it again, changed the title, and thought I’d give Wattpad a proper go.

The book has done quite well there. It’s not a flip-off to either of my literary agents that it has, though, because what works on Wattpad and what works at a tradepublisher and in bookshops are often very different things. And even here on Wattpad, A WOMAN OF THE SEA has been rejected for Paid and for Wattpad Books, because, again, what works in those narrow frameworks doesn’t always work for the website as a whole.

However, in this case, I have a segement of my readership that isn’t on Wattpad and doesn’t care to engage with the app/website, and who prefer hardcopy books. I have free rights over all the licences and ownership because my agent doesn’t want to rep it and Wattpad doesn’t want to monetize it, so I might as well make money on it myself.

If I decide to go forward with selfpubbing the novel, I’ll be working with the same team that did TRIPTYCH for me. I might possibly even narrate and selfpub my own audiobook too, as I have experience and a home recording studio. Who knows? The great part about selfpubbing is that you can do anything you want! (Though if you want to make money as a selfpubber, that anything you want has to be quality.)

… to kickstart a tradepub career.

Selfpublishing is also a great way to kickstart a tradpub career, too, if that’s something that appeals to you. It shows an agent that you can complete a project, and produce a professional-grade manuscript, and it also demonstrates that you understand how to market a book as well.

This also provides the opportunity for you to build up an audience that can migrate with you to tradepub; publishers and marketing departments sure do love lots of wonderful high stats and numbers in terms of audience engagement and readership.

Of course, as I’ve said in earlier chapters of this series, agents can’t sell manuscripts that already exist in book-form, so if you’re going to selfpub a book, make sure it’s not one that you’d rather see tradepubbed.

It is very very very rare for a tradepub house to pick up a book that has already been selfpubbed for large distribution. I can think of just two titles off the top of my head.

Tradepub publishers will only republish a book that already exists if they know the numbers are going to be through the roof – I’m talking millions of copies here, not just a few thousand, or a few hundred. If your project isn’t going to bring in that kind of money for a publisher (meaning, it’s already doing hundreds of thousands of copies, and you’re Big News – like Fifty Shades of Grey-sized news), then don’t pitch it.

Agents and Publishers are in the business of turning manuscripts into a product called a book. If your manuscript is already a book with a cover and an ISBN, then there’s nothing for them to create and sell. You’ve done it already.

So if you intend to selfpub a book, gain a readership that way, and then pitch the exact same project again to an agent or publisher, I urge you to give it a real think-over. There’s no harm in pitching the book around first and then selfpubbing if the book isn’t picked up.

By the same token, there’s also no harm in selfpubbing a book first, using that to build audience and loyalty, and then leveraging those numbers while pitching a second, different book to agents and publishers in the tradpub sphere. (So long as this second book has nothing to do with the first – don’t pitch the second book in a series that you’ve already begun to publish.)

Hybridity Makes You Stronger

Whichever way you want to go, making your career a Hybrid one can be rewarding and useful.

While discourse around selfpubbing often sets it head-to-head against tradepub, I firmly believe that not only can tradepub and selfpub can work hand-in-hand, but that an author who has feet in both worlds is a stronger, more well-rounded, more educated, and more professional creator.

Once you’ve tradepubbed, you know what level your selfpub work ought to be at. And when you’ve selfpubbed, you understand how all the gears and cogs of the tradepub machine fit together before you sign that contract, and will have a greater sense of how much marketing you’ll need to do or be involved in.

Don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to one kind of publishing or another. It’s a big wonderful world out there, and you can fill it with stories however works best for you.


Have a question about this chapter, or want to ask a different question? Feel free to leave a comment, or drop me an email. You can also read other WORDS FOR WRITERS articles here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: What is a Hybrid Author?
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